How Emotions Are Made: A Q&A with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

We often think of our emotions as sudden and fleeting, and we pride ourselves on making our decisions based on reason and logic — not letting our emotions get in the way. The reality is a bit grayer. Our emotions, it seems, are a bit more complex than we think. We respond to them in a variety of ways that may surprise us — and use multiple parts of the brain. The process has been a longtime interest of neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” which was published last year. She has given a number of lectures on the subject and was the recipient of the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award in 2007. She is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University of Massachusetts.

Her theory of constructed emotion explains why we experience emotions differently — and why we think we can perceive the emotions of others, even if we’re not necessarily accurate. Brain World recently had the opportunity to sit down with Barrett to discuss her work.

Brain World: What got you interested in neuroscience?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: I was always super interested in biology and in physiology and in anatomy. So I ended up going to graduate school, and I became very interested in the science of emotion when I was completing my doctoral dissertation because I had a collection of self-reported measures of emotion, where you ask people how they feel that weren’t performing the way they were supposed to, according to people’s beliefs about emotion at that time. So when people reported feeling anxious, they also reported feeling depressed and vice versa, and I thought, well, it’s obvious that anxiety and depression differ in many ways — including in how aroused people feel, so there must be some physical ways of measuring emotion. There must be some objective ways of measuring emotion that can tell you when someone is accurate about their experience and when they’re not.

I thought it would be a really simple, straightforward task that I would just go through the literature, look up the evidence and use it, because we all learn in our introductory psychology classes and all through graduate school that there are several categories of emotions that are universal — anger, sadness, fear, disgust that everyone around the world is born with a brain that has circuits for these emotions. When the circuit triggers, everyone makes the same expression on the face and the same autonomic changes in the body, and everyone can recognize these expressions, and so on. You know, when you’re angry, you scowl and your blood pressure goes up, and so on.

So I went through the literature, and I found that in fact, that’s not the case at all. Certainly, there are claims that that’s the case, but when you actually look at the data, it doesn’t support those claims — at all. Like, not even a little bit. You have people claiming that everybody scowls when they’re angry and pouts when they’re sad, but when you actually measure those muscle movements in the face electrically, you don’t find that at all. You know, sometimes in anger your heart rate goes up, sometimes it goes down, sometimes it stays the same. It all depends on what your brain is preparing your body to do — what action to take.

So as I was going through this, people started making claims about the localization of emotion in the brain that there were particular brain regions dedicated to particular emotions. So I started off as a clinical psychologist, and I retrained in psychophysiology, so I could learn about the electromyography of the face — the electrical signals of facial muscle movement — and I learned about autonomic physiology so I could measure the end organs of the body. This was right at the time when brain imaging started to become very popular, and I thought, well now I needed to become a neuroscientist.

So I did. I did all of those things as a professor, moving up through the ranks in a lab, and I took a little bit of a different approach than most neuroscientists coming out of psychology do. People studying the brain and the mind tend to start with the message. They might learn about functional brain imaging, for example, or they might learn about measuring electrical changes in the brain, or invasive brain stimulation. Instead of doing that, I decided I would start by learning the anatomy of the nervous system. So I started with the anatomy of the peripheral nervous system, up through the brain stem, into the cortex. I think this gave me a really different view than my colleagues, and I also think that because I didn’t start off steeped in the assumptions — I wasn’t trained in a neuroscience program — I was free from the assumptions of my field. I just came in kind of naive, and I think that allowed me to see some things that other people didn’t see at that time.

BW: Has our understanding of emotion changed significantly? How so?

LFB: Well, I’d like to give you a redemption story. Scientists had mistaken ideas about emotions and then came neuroscience and now we know better — look at the revolution that occurred. I don’t think that’s exactly what happened. I do think that brain imaging played a super important part. I think the story is more like this — that since the time of the ancient world, people have believed that emotions are these urges that are built in to the more animalistic parts of our brains from birth, and that they can be localized to particular regions of the brain. So back in ancient times, some people weren’t thinking about the brain as being important for the mind, like Aristotle, but other people, like Hippocrates, were really interested in the brain as the seat of the mind. The assumption was always that the brain, or the cortical parts of the brain, were important for thinking, and the body, or the subcortical parts of the brain which control the body, are important for emotion. This was always the assumption.

Yet at every point in history, whoever was writing about emotion also raised concerns about this view — and nobody ever listened, really. Whatever counted as data, in any particular era, was brought to bear against this view — but no one listened. Then in the late 19th century, when psychology was emerging as a science, researchers tried to understand the physical basis of thinking, or of being angry. During this time, there were scientists like Wilhelm Wundt or William James, who said our understanding of emotion is completely wrong. For many years, people tried to find the physical basis of emotion in the body, in the brain, and nobody could do it.

So people started to offer ideas on how the brain was creating emotion, but those ideas were never formalized really well. When brain imaging emerged, people started to again test the hypothesis that emotions can be localized in different parts of the brain, and that’s actually how it looks for a little bit of time in some of the first studies, but it quickly became clear that that wasn’t the case. One of the things that you sometimes hear from neuroscientists is that we’ve learned nothing from brain imaging at all for various reasons, but that’s completely untrue. We’ve learned a tremendous amount from brain imaging. It’s just not what people expected to learn.

What we learn is that the brain for the most part, when it comes to psychological phenomena like thinking and feeling, and deciding and seeing, and so on, doesn’t have any dedicated regions or even dedicated networks for these phenomena. Instead of asking where is emotion in the brain, what you can ask instead is — how is emotion created by the brain? We understand now that the brain is equipped with large-scale networks that are involved in a lot of the same functions. Neuroscience didn’t so much give us an aha moment as it put the nails in the coffin built over a very long period of time.

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